If you direct your thought and control your emotions, you will ordain your destiny.”
~Napoleon Hill, author and advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
As we continue with our goal to defeat depression through mindfulness, I cannot stress enough that—unless you have a severe chemical imbalance in your brain that is causing your depression—you do have a choice! You can take control of your emotions, and choose to express the emotions that will lift you up rather than bring you down.
It’s all about taking control over our emotions by taking control of our thoughts, rather than let them drag us down into some hopeless pit. Taking control is not always easy since we tend to play events over and over in our mind, we entertain them and relive them, until they become an integral part of us. And since we’re more likely to hide or cover up our wounds than identify them so they can be healed, our emotions tend to grow tentacles that reach into our souls and squeeze, twist and strangle us, and our hearts, to death.
Again, this blog deals primarily with parents and families who are grieving the loss of a baby, so, if you fall into that category, your depression is most likely going to be “temporary.” But be aware that grief can cause a Major Depressive Disorder in vulnerable people.
How do you know if you are experiencing a Major Depressive Disorder, or MDD? Major Depression or a Major Depressive Disorder is defined as a severely depressed mood that persists for at least two weeks. Periods of depression may occur as discrete events or as recurring events over your lifespan. (I fall into the latter category, which probably contributed to my more severe depression that I suffered after Victoria’s death.)
And it’s important to know that stress contributes to the development and maintenance of depression. When you experience stress that you, or your body, find difficult or impossible to control, the stress contributes to the development and maintenance of depression. And when depression sets in, it can become a vicious cycle filled with the following:
~ Your depression can lead to, or become a means by which you compulsively seek
relief from the stress.
~ It can drive you to avoid experiencing uncomfortable or distressing emotions or
situations. The way you end up avoiding them is by checking out of or disengaging
from life. Activities and things you used to find rewarding and enjoyable are no
longer rewarding and enjoyable, so you withdraw from them, and people, completely.
~ When you disengage from life, you have a tendency to become self-involved
and inward thinking. This leads to more negative thoughts and wrong beliefs about
yourself, like feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and failure.
~ When a specific section of your brain (called the anterior cingulate) doesn’t trigger a
change in your emotional response strategy, you keep re-thinking of the negatives,
instead of putting on the breaks and changing your thought patterns, and, thus,
your emotional response. But take heart! Changes in this brain area’s response have
been associated with recovery from depression!
While emotions are critical to life and serve an important function, we need to learn how to put on the brakes and stop letting our emotions control us! We can learn positive interpretations for negative stimuli, which, in turn, decreases the brain’s automatically “negative” response and allows us to eventually get to a point where the once-negative stimuli have no effect on us. Fear and depression can be erased from the brain!
What we need to remember is that our feelings are usually products of our beliefs, and on what we focus the majority of our thoughts—the messages we repeatedly tell ourselves.
So, bearing that in mind, ask yourself some questions: What am I thinking about most often? Is it my loss? Do I spend most of my day thinking about the tragedy, the pain the suffering? Do I always feel discouraged because I’m afraid that all hope is lost and that I, or someone else, was a failure? Have I lost my confidence? Do I feel inadequate, and keep beating myself up with negative self-talk about my inadequacy? (If you have lost a baby or loved one, you will most likely feel discouraged because all hope does initially seem lost—to you it is!—and it feels as though the outcome resulted in complete failure.)
If you’ve lost a baby and you’re thinking about trying to have another one, or
you’re currently in the midst of a subsequent pregnancy after a loss, then you might be filled with feelings of despair, chronic worrying about what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. (This is what I personally encountered while going through the grieving process and then struggling with whether or not to try again. I also encountered fear and anxiety throughout the next pregnancy, which you’ll read about next year.)
When our minds are overburdened with negative, self-defeating thoughts, we don’t see a future, and we’re frightened about even thinking about one. All we can think about is our loss, our pain, the death of our dreams, an overwhelming, disabling frustration with life’s unavoidable disappointments and heart wrenching losses. An unrealistic feeling that no one has ever suffered as much or in the same way we have suffered. Yet at some point in our future, we need to learn, to teach ourselves—give ourselves permission and encouragement—to dream again.
In my last post, I promised to tell you an odd, somewhat humorous story about an event that has caused anxiety in my life.
About twelve years ago, my husband and I lounged comfortably in our family room, while watching a program on The History Channel. Now, before I go further, I need to tell you that I had never experienced claustrophobia, a fear of small, dark, enclosed places. On the contrary, when I was a kid, I was often like a cat, happy to find the tightest, darkest places in which to crawl and hide.
But this particular History Channel program changed all of that and profoundly affected my life.
The program was about the history of burial rituals and modern procedures that developed over the centuries due to certain concerns and problems relating to death and burial. What was one of those problems? The frequency with which people were buried alive, before modern medicine could more accurately determine death, and before embalming became standard practice. (Embalming, by the way, became standard practice due to this issue.)
Well, the longer I watched, the worse it got, and the more intensely I watched and was horrified by what I saw and learned. My brain started imagining what it would be like to be buried alive, to fight for air, to claw and scream to fight my way out of a coffin; to fail and suffocate to death. And along with my overactive mind, came all of the bodily reactions to such horror: rapid heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing. Anxiety. (You think I would have been smart enough to turn off the stupid television, but I didn’t. I just got more and more agitated.) My body responded exactly as if it had been subjected to such horror.
What was the result? Well, first I had recurring nightmares about it. Then I realized I had developed a healthy dose of claustrophobia. And when I rode in an elevator for the first time by myself after this program, after experiencing all of this anxiety-riddled response, I realized I was now terrified of getting stuck in an elevator alone and dying there! (I don’t have any fear when someone else is riding with me. I guess I feel some comfort in knowing that I won’t be dying alone!) It was especially shocking and embarrassing because I grew up in high-risk apartment and condominium buildings where I practically lived in elevators!
Is there anything logical about this? Not really. Although it is technically possible for someone to die in an elevator after getting stuck there, it’s highly unlikely. And if I make sure I’m well hydrated, comfortable and am packing my cell phone, I should be able to call for help and wait out the emergency rescue process without a hitch. I might even be able to take a nap while I’m waiting!
When I confront an elevator, I have two choices: I can escape the threat by taking the stairs; or I can do some relaxation-induced breathing, give myself a pep talk, (which, I admit, doesn’t always work well once the elevator doors close), take the elevator and sing, pray or distract my way to my arrival. Or I could do what my pastor (who suffers from anxiety) does and greet my familiar, anxious feelings by saying, “Hello, old friend.” Just personifying the emotion and talking to it has a way of diffusing it.
I am getting better, but I admit I remain far more likely to take the stairs, if they’re available, and still do a lot of praying and self-talk while I’m riding up and down! And during my last MRI test, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply throughout the event. And I experienced not one twinge of anxiety! I was so proud of myself!
I can’t stress this enough: When you feel as if your mind is wandering down the same, self-degrading path, take control and stop it! If you have to, speak aloud the word, “No!” Tell your brain you’re not going to go there, and then redirect it’s standard emotional response by focusing on pleasing, edifying thoughts.
Replace those painful, disabling thoughts with the memories and mental pictures of the wonderful moments you and your loved one shared, and smile about them. (Refer to the posts on mind-body medicine.) Fill your heart with gratefulness over the memories, times you spent together, the life you shared.
Remember those wonderful baby kicks that alerted you to the life you carried in your womb. Fill your heart and mind with the joy of the love you share with your spouse that brought that baby’s life into being.
I know, it all sounds trite, disingenuous, simplistic and somewhat heartless, particularly to a grieving person. (I know, because I’ve been there many times.) And if you’re in the beginning stages of grief, you will need to give yourself time before confronting any grief-related depression, recurring fears or anxiety.
My encouragement to you is to first remind yourself that there is a way out, that through persistence, repetition and self-discipline, you can change your thoughts, which will help you change your reaction to events and then help you overcome the negative emotions that now paralyze and dilute your life and all of its potential.
You can overcome and experience victory!
As a wrap-up, let’s set down some specific definitions and examples of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention. It is:
~ Observation or awareness of internal and external experiences
~ Occurring in the present moment
~ Qualities of acceptance, openness and non-judgment
Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind and openness to novelty, a process
of actively drawing novel distinctions. When we’re mindful, we are sensitive to context and to the perspective that we are situated in the present.
In many ways it can be considered a state of super awareness. You are fully engaged in the moment, not allowing your brain or thoughts to wander, not succumbing to multi-tasking in work or thoughts. You are giving steady attention to your moment-by-moment experiences.
You deliberately take the time to allow the thinking parts of your brain to analyze the situation and kick in before you allow the reactive parts of your brain to take over and dictate your (typically negative) emotional response.
As one patient put it: “I began living my life more consciously, for example, in regard to how I coped with stress. I started to ask myself: How do I want to deal with this? How am I reacting to my environment? In stressful situations I could sometimes take a step back and pause before responding.”
There are other things that I’ve learned through this ongoing battle for my mind: I have learned (for the most part) not to make assumptions about my days; not to be presumptive about the future; to truthfully acknowledge that any time or day may be the last (and live like it is); and, remind myself that while I dream, I shouldn’t spend so much time dreaming about the future and working for it that I neglect living in the present.
When I make an honest, concerted effort to do all of these things, I am able to shed my depression and truly bring myself back into the land of the living, in a way that allows me to not just exist, but to know, believe and live like I have a hope and a future. And my brain, and body, happily—gratefully—come along for the ride!
NEXT WEEK I’ll teach you how you can have permanent victory through Spirituality and Prayer
Until next week,
Thanks for joining me!
Note: Some information for this post has been extrapolated from Dr. George F. Koob’s, “Calming An Overactive Brain,” presented through the Institute for Brain Potential, September 30, 2013.